You don’t have to be a prophet to know who the winner will be in Sunday’s state elections. It will be the “Alternative for Germany,” or AfD.
The right-wing populist protest party, which still has no real program to call its own, is expected to achieve double-digit results in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg and the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, and around 9 percent in the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate. That would put AfD members in half of all the state parliaments, shaping the political debate for several years to come. By then, at the very latest, the AfD would no longer be dismissed as just another marginal political player.
And Germany's traditional political parties must accept considerable blame for the rise of the AfD. The continued failure of the state to deal with the refugee crisis has practically driven German citizens into their arms. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, her vice chancellor and minister for economics and energy, systematically underestimated the unsettling effect of letting more than one million refugees into the country. Merkel's insistence that the country can handle so many is increasingly seen as a dangerous rejection of reality rather than a call for solidarity.
And it’s not as if one could accuse the governing "grand coalition" of Ms. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and Mr. Gabriel's center-left Social Democrats – or indeed Ms. Merkel – of showing too little commitment to solving the refugee crisis. But realistically, the plan to find a European solution while continuing to keep Europe’s borders open has been a complete failure.
That's because Germany's European partners still refuse to take in a significant share of refugees. Instead, the Balkan states have effectively closed down what was the main refugee route to western Europe. Now only asylum seekers with valid passports and visas are being let through. The strict border controls are so effective that only a few hundred refugees per day are being registered in Germany.
The integration of refugees in Germany will keep politicians, the economy and society busy for years to come.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel should really be quite happy with this progress. After all, they also supported putting an end to the policy of “waving them through.” But instead they are criticizing the closing of the Balkan route.
Deeply unsettled citizens simply don‘t understand such contradictions. They want more from their politicians than well-intentioned rhetoric – they expect to see visible progress in dealing with the refugee crisis. In this situation, the AfD’s simple answers on the subject of closing borders are enough to soothe frustrated voters.
Furthermore, neither of the two leading parties have come up with the right answers to the populist proposals of the AfD. Instead of putting someone like Frauke Petry, the co-leader of the AfD, on the spot, they tried initially to ignore the party, before moving on to badmouth it.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called the AfD “boneheads” and “a disgrace for Germany.” European Union Commissioner Günther Oettinger even spoke of shooting himself, “if that strange Petry were my wife.” Ms. Merkel herself said the AfD "did not bring society together and offered no suitable solutions to problems – it only stirred up prejudices and divided people.”
But it will take more than that to halt the rise of the AfD. Indeed, the party will not lose political influence as easily as other smaller parties have in the past. The integration of refugees in Germany will keep politicians, the economy and society busy for years to come. But it is by no means clear yet that the task with all its cultural and financial challenges will be accomplished. A clear majority of the population still has the feeling that the government is not in control of the situation. Turkey’s blackmail attempts are seen by many as confirmation of this.
One can only hope that the established parties see the state elections as a warning shot, and not return to navel-gazing as usual. One of their central tasks will now be to prevent the AfD from getting into federal parliament, the Bundestag, in the elections next year.
To succeed, they will need to find answers for the open questions of their refugee policy. They also need a strategy to combat the right-wing populist demands of the AfD.
There is a lot at stake for Germany. A move to the right will frighten off foreign investors and damage Germany as an export nation. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel are responsible for preventing that.
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